catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 24 :: 2005.12.30 — 2006.01.12


Grieving in community

The desperation of grief makes you want to find others who have lived through the experience. Some people attend support groups, but I’m more comfortable reading. I found that there was little in the books on grieving to help me understand what I was experiencing. My daughter’s death was not sudden and my husband and I did a lot of grieving before she died. The grieving literature focused on dealing with anger and being able to laugh again; things we had already done at the hospital. Because of our unique experience I wanted something that helped me to grieve in a more creative way. None of this was consciously thought, of course, so it was providence that I discovered Shadow Baby by Alison McGhee.

Told from the perspective of 11-year-old Clara winter, Shadow Baby explores Clara’s obsession with her twin sister’s death. Clara lives with her mother, Tamar, in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. She was born, along with her stillborn twin sister, in her mother’s truck during a blizzard. She has never met her father or grandfather and mourns the sister she never knew. Tamar refuses to discuss what happened to any of them, so to fill in the gaps, Clara writes stories about pioneers and hermits who are searching as well, struggling against adversity in a world that is out to get them — characters whose lives mimic her struggle. The stories she creates often involve the dramatic rescue of a child — a baby from a flood, a midwife who is trained in infant CPR, a warm house for a freezing brother. Clara creates her own reality — a reality that is far easier to tolerate; a reality in which adversity can be overcome and death does not exist, but instead of helping her to face her pain, the stories distance her from it.

Winter is a symbol, both in her life and in her stories, of death. Her sister’s death in a snowstorm and her mother’s silence leave Clara in perpetual winter, perpetual grieving. The whiteness of the winter landscape mimics the emptiness of Clara’s knowledge of her own history. Clara writes her stories to fight the emptiness and the reality of her sister’s death: “If my baby sister were alive, winter would not have won. Tamar and my grandfather would not have been defeated by a blizzard. They would have triumphed in the face of adversity. They would have laughed in the face of death.” Clara even writes her last name in lowercase letters in an attempt to deny winter its power. Like the heroes of her stories, she is constantly struggling against the forces of nature.

Her attempts to deny her pain are thwarted when she meets Georg Kominsky, an immigrant from “a country that no longer exists.” In the beginning, she tries to idealize his life too, making him the hero of two dramatic rescues. Instead, Georg teaches her how to look for possibility in what other people throw away, taking garbage and transforming it into beautiful objects — a lantern, some cookie cutters. He helps her transform her need to suppress the truth into the ability to see beauty in the pain: “I took the dented olive oil can and studied it myself, for the possibility. I’m training my eye… You have to have the ability to see another destiny for something, a fate far removed from its original one.” Toward the end of the novel another death brings her the painful answers to her history. She uses her creativity to accept her life as it is and create something beautiful of it.

Accompanying Clara in her search for meaning and acceptance not only gives me company on my journey through grief but also allows me to see and accept the transforming power of my daughter’s life and death:

The old man taught me how to see the possibility of beauty. He taught me how to make objects that are useful as well as beautiful. I keep my eyes open. At any moment something may shine out at me.

Other Titles

These are some other books that have brought me comfort:

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